In Depth: Michelle Williams

June 1, 2016

If you want an insider's view of the creative sector in Santa Cruz your best bet is to talk with Arts Council Santa Cruz County Executive Director Michelle Williams. So that is exactly what we did. Michelle leads an organization that provides resources and support to the arts community and helps to foster the creative spirit in Santa Cruz. We met with her at Radius Gallery on the Tannery Arts Center campus to dive deep into the industry and better understand why Santa Cruz is such a magnet for artists and creative businesses. 

Please introduce yourself and tell us what you do:

My name is Michelle Williams and I am the Executive Director of Arts Council Santa Cruz County

Can you tell me why the arts council was formed and what it does?

The Arts Council was formed in 1979 and we promote, connect, and invest in Santa Cruz County through the arts. We bring together resources to inspire creativity and vibrancy through the work of artists and arts organizations. We provide arts education in the schools for almost 15,000 children every year, and we also produce the annual Open Studios art tour which has been going on for 31 years.

Why should someone start a creative business in Santa Cruz?

If you’re looking to do something creative, this is the place to do it. We have the natural environment that inspires creativity and inspires big picture thinking and really amazing people to come together to do great things. One of the things that's extraordinary about Santa Cruz is that for any random thing you can think of, there are hundreds of people who are really passionate about it, so tapping into that passion is an incredible resource. I have lived all over the country and traveled around the world and I’ve never found a place like Santa Cruz, as a hotbed of creativity and innovation and really great thinking.

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What is it about Santa Cruz that draws creative people here?

I think what initially draws people here is the natural beauty. I think it's actually not just the ocean and the redwoods, but the very air that draws people here. When you get a convergence of artists you get a convergence of critical thinking and innovation and possibility. So even if you’re not an artist, I think you can move here and tap into that and make something really extraordinary happen.

What gets the creative community in Santa Cruz excited?

A spirit of possibility is what gets this creative community excited. I think when you smash open the doors and break down the walls and say we want to make this really amazing thing happen, that’s when the creative juices get flowing. I’ll use our program, Ebb and Flow as an example. We wanted to enliven the San Lorenzo Riverwalk through public art and community building and we left it wide open. We said, "We want to celebrate the river; we want to celebrate artistry, and we want to tell stories of this river." And the artistry and creativity that came out of that was something we could have never imagined. So if you give people resources and time and space, people in this community will come together and do something great.

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What is special about Santa Cruz to you?

I moved to Santa Cruz six-and-a-half years ago and I’ve lived all over the country and traveled around the world. And, within three or four months of moving here I had met more extraordinary people in one place than in my entire life and feel like there isn't enough hours in the day to spend with all of them.  And these are people who make me think, who challenge me and inspire me, who make me want to be my best and highest self. I’ve really never experienced anything like it and I really think it's the environment of Santa Cruz that draws all of these incredible people here who are drawn here maybe for some unknown reason and then they get here and they are determined to make this place even more wonderful.

What opportunities do you see here for creatives?

I think the opportunities are endless. I think we have this can-do environment and creative atmosphere where if you want to do something wonderful and wacky or conservative or smart or you want to change the world, Santa Cruz is the place to start doing it. We’ve got the people, the environment, and the spirit, where anything is possible.

What is the Arts Council's connection to arts education in Santa Cruz?

Arts education in the schools is a challenge statewide. Here in Santa Cruz, arts organizations, the Arts Council, and many individual artists have come together collectively to solve that. Together, we are providing arts education for thousands of kids K-12 which is wonderful but there are still so many kids who don’t get the arts experiences they need and deserve. We all need to keep working on this so we can move the needle on reaching our vision: arts for every child, every classroom, every day.

As far as adults go and adult learning, there are extraordinary opportunities between Cabrillo College and University of California, Santa Cruz, and hundreds of individual artists who offer classes, including right here at the Tannery Arts Center. If you want to learn how to do something creative, anything from sewing to sculpting to how to tag a barn, this community can teach you. 

What is the economic impact of the arts in Santa Cruz?

The arts have a tremendous economic impact within the County of Santa Cruz. We generate 38 million dollars of economic activity every year – and that's just the nonprofit arts industry – that doesn’t include any movie theaters, architecture firms, or any of the creative for-profit businesses. The nonprofit arts sector supports almost 800 full-time-equivalent jobs, which makes the arts as a sector one of the ten largest employers in Santa Cruz County and we generate over 5 million dollars in local, and state government revenue. When someone goes out to see a play they go to dinner, they park, they buy clothes to go out, they have cocktails after the show. We bring people together for creative experiences, and those people spend money at local businesses, and that fuels our economy. It’s a powerful positive impact on our community.

So, you are located here in the Tannery Arts Center, why did you choose this as your home?

The Arts Council’s been around since 1979 and we have bounced around the county in various offices and three years ago we were so thrilled to finally move home here at the Tannery Arts Center. We are here because this campus, which is the most diverse arts campus in the nation, has this incredible potential to be the beating heart of the arts in Santa Cruz County. With a theater, with live/work lofts, working studios and the Arts Council here, this is a confluence of creativity that is a really appropriate and wonderful place for the Arts Council to have its home.

Can you explain the relationship between the Tannery Arts Center and the City of Santa Cruz?

The Tannery Arts Center was created in partnership with the City as one of the leaders and Art Space, a national arts developer, as the other partner and a lot of private individuals and many other people –  blood, sweat, and tears – to make this incredible place happen. The City leases land to Art Space to run the live/work studios and the working studios and is the Arts Council is landlord (and one of the best landlords I can imagine). There is a tremendous understanding on the part of the City of the role of the arts in our community, particularly through economic development and community betterment in general. So we really see the City as a tremendous partner in all things creative that we do and in the success of the Arts Council.

What was the experience working with the City to set up your office here at the Tannery?

The City has been a great partner in getting us here and supporting the various infrastructure needs that we have to be successful here. We moved into a very old building that is now very beautiful, but old buildings always have their quirks and the City has been a helpful landlord and partner in helping us – much in the same way we want to help artists create. We support artists with business infrastructure, and that’s what the City does for us. So without them, we wouldn’t be nearly as effective. We really value our partnership with the City.

Can you describe the relationship between the Economic Development Office and Arts Council?

The Economic Development Office at the City of Santa Cruz is our greatest connection and through line to the City. I think it is very appropriate that that is where our relationship resides because Economic Development is charged with helping the City thrive and they understand that we are a really important part of that. We also understand that they are a very important part of making the arts thrive. So, it's a beautiful working relationship. The Arts Program Manager and myself collaborate on numerous projects and apply for funding together. I think their whole office and our whole office, is kind of like a big family. We all understand each other’s needs and we both want to help the other succeed and I think we do a beautiful job doing it together.

How common are creative-based businesses in Santa Cruz?

The nonprofit sector in Santa Cruz is alive and well and that is certainly reflected in the depth and breadth of our arts organizations. We have an incredibly high density of arts organizations in Santa Cruz including world class ones – everything from the Cabrillo Music Festival to Santa Cruz Shakespeare to the thousands of individual artists that work here. In fact, Santa Cruz County is the fifth most dense artist population in the nation and that’s after San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Fe, New York, and then, it’s Santa Cruz.  

Santa Cruz County is the fifth most dense artist population in the nation and that’s after San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Fe, New York, and then, it’s Santa Cruz.

What do you think is the biggest benefit to having a creative business here?

There are many benefits to having a creative business here. There are so many thinkers and innovators and creators and incredibly creative people who can help craft whatever it is that you want to do. Santa Cruz can make it happen through the people. The second piece is the environment. People want great things to happen here. They want this to be a vibrant and inclusive and wonderful place for people to live and work. Third, you get to go surfing on your lunch break and you get to go to the redwoods on the weekend and you get to raise families in the most incredible place for kids I've ever experienced, so I actually can't imagine having a creative business anywhere else.

What is the Arts Council’s relationship to the overall business community?

At the Arts Council we support creativity. We support innovators. We encourage artists from the time they’re born for the rest of their lives. We help feed the business sector of this community. More and more people who own businesses and who are starting business or even run massive corporations are looking for creativity and innovation in the people they hire and that is what we do.

How does the Arts Council help teach artists how to manage their business?

Artists are wonderful creators, and not always wonderful business people, so one of the things we do at the Arts Council is help elevate their business skills, their financial literacy, and their business minds so they can concentrate on their art making and we can help them with the business side. We partner with Cabrillo College and the Small Business Development Center and many others to provide workshops and do one-on-one consulting and this is also for the smaller arts organizations. We want the creators to create and one of our jobs is to help them succeed.

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What are the most exciting opportunities in the creative sector in Santa Cruz?

The sky’s the limit in the creative sector. There are so many people who care so deeply about the arts and there are so many opportunities for places to enliven and people to bring together. I don’t think our arts cup will ever brimmeth over. I think there are such extraordinary opportunities for instance here at the Tannery Arts Center campus. This campus is just now complete with the addition of the Colligan Theater and we can see thousands of people coming from around the world, coming right here on a weekly basis to experience the hundreds of artists and arts organizations that enliven this place. First Friday is an extraordinary thing that happens downtown every single month. I’m sorry I hardly know how to answer because there is no limit to what can happen here in the creative sector. All it takes is more people, more thinking, more creativity, and more people embracing all the awesome that is here in Santa Cruz.

How is business at the Arts Council?

Business at the Arts Council is never dull. The challenge for us everyday is to say, there are so many opportunities, there are so many great things we want to do, how do we choose? How do we possibly choose between all of the incredible projects and movements that we want to be a part of. Particularly now, as we look really closely at how the Arts Council can be an agent for social good and community betterment. You know, I open my door and look at the world everyday and I think, “OK, what’s it going to be today?” It’s an overwhelming feeling but it’s an extraordinary feeling because it's a feeling of possibility and then just having to choose and focus. So, things are great. It's really just about, what is the adventure going to be today?

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I’ve never lived anywhere like Santa Cruz. I think there is a spirit here, and a passion here, and a dedication to community here that is unlike anything I have ever experienced. If you want to come here and create something wonderful, you are going to find a lot of people behind you, everything from artists, to community members, to city government, to thought leaders. This is the place to make something extraordinary happen.

More about Arts Council Santa Cruz County: 

Since 1979, the Arts Council has been a passionate supporter of the unique, ever-evolving Santa Cruz County arts movement. Arts Council is a private, non-profit agency made up of a staff, board, and volunteers who are dedicated to serving the arts community.

Arts Council Santa Cruz County offers a variety of programs and services, including: 

  • Open Studios Art Tour: One of the most popular annual arts events in Santa Cruz County. For nearly three decades, we’ve connected artists to the community through this flagship program.
  • Grants: Investing in artists and their professional development, as well as arts organizations and their creative and cultural programs.
  • Arts Education: The SPECTRA & Mariposa’s Art programs provide arts education in public schools, serving more than 10,000 children and teens each year.
  • Technical Assistance & Workforce Development: Our efforts support and develop the creative sector through Arts Council Associates, Exhibitions, Workshops, and Fiscal Sponsorships.
  • Collaborations & Initiatives: We help advance arts and culture county-wide through advocacy efforts, cultural tourism initiatives, the naming and promotion of a Poet Laureate and much more.

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